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What Are Correction Officers So Afraid Of?

Besides the danger, being ignored.

If you're a correction officer, you know what each day is likely to have in store: a treadmill of stress and often nastiness, in an environment outsiders rarely think about and struggle to comprehend. But for all the power COs presumably have in their role as jailers, research shows they are authentically fearful, and at the mercy of policy changes that they cannot control and often do not understand.

A new study by criminologists Jill Gordon of Virginia Commonwealth University and Thomas Baker of the University of Central Florida looked at what causes correctional officers to feel scared. Gordon and Baker surveyed 901 COs working at 40 institutions in an undisclosed mid-Atlantic state. They asked officers if they were fearful of or likely to encounter a variety of circumstances, such as being attacked by an inmate or getting hurt while transferring inmates between cells. The researchers also gathered information on whether the COs felt camaraderie with coworkers and believed that their facilities were understaffed or poorly organized.

The paper, published in Criminal Justice Policy Review, an academic journal, found that non-white officers experienced more fear than white officers did. Officers who described their jobs as “frustrating” or who worked in higher-security institutions were also more afraid of being victimized by inmates. There were important differences between male and female COs. Women were especially fearful if they worked in an institution housing male prisoners — not surprising considering reports of sexual harassment of female officers by male inmates. Male COs, on the other hand, were more likely to be scared if they were less educated.

The differences based on race and sex are likely caused by “officer subculture,” Gordon said in an interview. “Racial minority officers and female officers are fairly new in the scope of correctional officers historically.”

The media and public are often focused less on officers’ concerns than on their malfeasance. COs have recently made news for smuggling drugs into prisons; beating, verbally abusing, and neglecting inmates; engaging in inappropriate sexual relationships with prisoners; and raping them. Yet the dangers COs face each day are real.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among occupational groups, only police experience more violent incidents at work than correction officers. For every 10,000 full-time COs, there were 254 workplace assaults and violent injuries reported in 2011 — 36 times the rate for all American workers. More than a third of those injuries occurred while a CO restrained a prisoner or intervened in an altercation. The arm, hand, and fingers were most commonly affected by sprains, strains, contusions, or abrasions. Serious injuries and deaths were rare. In 2013, 15 workplace fatalities of correctional workers were reported nationwide, in a workforce of nearly 470,000 people.

That workforce is shaped by its own culture and rules. Sociologists who have studied American prisons have long encountered what they call “paramilitary” or “good ol’ boy” ideals, which can be unfriendly to women and people of color and value physical control as the ultimate source of power.

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Kevin Minor, a criminologist at Eastern Kentucky University, has conducted a number of surveys of workers in adult and juvenile corrections. He and his coauthors have found that non-white COs experience lower job morale, in part because of fewer supportive relationships with their white colleagues. “In these facilities, even in rural areas, you have a high concentration of minority inmates,” he said. “You’ve got to be sure that you have staff that are representative. But if you’re going to put diverse staff in a context that has traditionally been largely white, that creates a need to train the white staff, and the leadership, in a way that is going to be respectful.”

Poor training and mismanagement can have severe consequences not only for officers’ job satisfaction, but for prisoners. Robert Worley and Vidisha Barua Worley, criminologists at Lamar University, have studied why COs cross boundaries with inmates. Those boundaries can range from the largely symbolic — shaking hands, giving an inmate a soda, or sharing personal details — to the illegal, such as bringing in contraband or carrying on sexual relationships. In a study of Texas COs, they found that those who complained of a lack of support from their supervisors were more likely to report participating in or witnessing boundary violations.

Ultimately, the demographic characteristics of COs are less important to job satisfaction and institutional safety than the way in which facilities are organized and led, Minor’s work has found. “The good news is, as an administrator or policymaker, work environment variables are something you can control,” he said.

Correction officers with more of a rehabilitative than a punitive mindset are less stressed, according to research, and may be less likely to quit or abuse their charges. A forthcoming study from Jill Gordon, the coauthor of the paper on CO fears, looks at a CO training program that is “trying to create a healing environment, to recognize their role as the first line in moving offenders forward,” she said.

Minor recommends including rank-and-file officers in conversations about policy changes, such as reducing solitary confinement. “A lot of people who work in these places are former military,” he said. “You combine that with the heavily politicized nature of the job and you end up with people at the top making decisions in a vacuum. The people down below who have to implement the decisions have no clue what the logic is. They feel their perspective has not been taken, which promotes alienation, feelings of withdrawal, and detachment” — all of which can contribute to officers’ perpetrating violence or neglecting their duties.

“You can easily end up with the sort of problems we see at Rikers Island, in Los Angeles County, and in rural facilities,” he continued. “The one thing that can break that sort of logic is an abuse scandal,” like the current concern over the treatment of Kalief Browder, a teenage inmate at Rikers who was placed in solitary confinement, beaten, and later committed suicide after his release. “We’ve seen that a number of times, when staff get in trouble. New leadership can pretty quickly turn that type of mentality around.”